In acting, what is the smallest unit of action?

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Answered by: Darin, An Expert in the Theater - General Category
What is a beat?

A "beat" in terms of acting analysis is the smallest unit of action with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The term actually comes from Constantin Stanislavsky's system of acting that latter evolved into the style of acting in America as devised by Lee Strasberg, commonly refered to as "The Method." According to anecdote, Stanislavsky was giving a presentation of his system to a group of theatre artists in America and recommended that they break the play or scene down into "bits." His Russian pronunciation was recieved as "beats" by the those listening at the event.

Ever since, champions of Stanislavsky, and all of Western Acting Technique, have refered to this distallation of action and objective as the process of breaking the script into "beats." It is, in fact, a happy accident that has influenced the evolution of modern theatre. The term "beat" also implies a rhythm to acting and performance as in a piece of music. This strange and accidental disnction has allowed theatre artist's to percieve of the performance of a piece of theatre as akin to the performance of a piece of music. Now the director and the actor can approach the process with a sense of it's crescendoes, rhythms, climaxes, and silent moments, as they would in a more mathematical and exacting fashion, a work of classical music.

However, the term "beat," and it's association with the world of music, and, in fact, its anecdotal origin, have made the term very mercurial in its absolute application to acting. The term has been used and abused and misapplied, even within the framework of a single rehearsal - even in the thought of a single theatre practitioner. Many directors refer to the term "beat" with regard to its rythmic quality, i.e. "wait a beat or two before entering." Others refer to a "beat" in appropriate, yet ill-defined terms, i.e. "take a beat here." And further, some have adopted an assessment of the term as derived from its use among writers of the early twentieth century when refering to an implied hesitation of the character, i.e. "He takes a beat, then speaks." Usually to comic effect.

All of this points to an inatate difficulty in the history of theatrical acting terms. Often the terms are about things that exist in a realm that is exclusive to the art of the actor, the emotional and transistory. Things that are subjective to that individual actor and largely unrecordable. The term "beat" is one of those things that exists in the amorphous and protean world of temporal art, but it can be defined and thereby utilised to the benefit of all theatrical artists. I repeat, "a beat is the smallest unit of action with a beginning, middle and end."

When coupled with the very basic needs of acting, that is, to pursue an action in fullfillment of an objective, this supplies the fundamental framework of all acting, regrdless of style or genre. This is the way Stanislavsky concieved it, regardless of what he might have actually said.

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